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How Trump can keep peace in cyberspace

Progress in peace

As he prepares to revamp US cybersecurity, he must prevent other nations from fearing the US capability and creating a cyber arms race.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, right, speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the White House Jan. 31.
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One of President Trump’s campaign promises was to protect the nation’s cyberspace from attacks – including its election process. He is now preparing an executive order aimed at doing just that. It is expected to, for example, centralize responsibility for the protection of government computers, train 100,000 cyber specialists, and seek a review of all vulnerabilities to foreign hackers.

Like presidents before him in the Digital Age, he must walk a fine line, especially if he beefs up offensive cyberweapons to retaliate for any attack. A strong cyber capability by the United States could evoke uncertainty and fear in other countries about their own security. This might create a cyber arms race that would benefit no one and possibly damage the internet’s positive aspects.

Fear, in other words, should not beget fear.

The world needs US leadership to set international norms for cyberdefenses, such as more transparency in each country’s cybermilitary tactics. The US must maintain a good dialogue with Russia, China, and other adversaries. And it must show unusual restraint in how it retaliates to an attack, perhaps by not responding in kind but in other ways, such as economic sanctions or criminal prosecutions.

Unlike conventional warfare, cyberwar has peculiar aspects. It can be very difficult to determine the origin of an attack, the so-called attribution problem, given all the methods of deception. Nations are highly dependent on one another to maintain the open – and largely peaceful – digital networks. And the line between offensive and defensive capabilities can be easily blurred, causing insecurity between states.

“The risk of misinterpretation yields a worrying possibility: greater tension, and perhaps escalation, even if neither state desires the other any harm,” writes Harvard University scholar Ben Buchanan, author of a new book, “The Cybersecurity Dilemma.”

The two presidents before Mr. Trump showed valuable restraint to the many attacks on US networks. This has allowed the US and others to attempt to build up cooperation and trust over cybersecurity. A new president should follow their example, and not create a spiral of fear in cyberspace.